Wednesday, 14 October 2020

The Amazing Race 32, Episode 1 (Travel during the pandemic)

Los Angeles, CA (USA) - Port of Spain, Trinidad (Trinidad & Tobago) - Tobago (Trinidad & Tobago)

Travel during the coronavirus pandemic

Season 32 of The Amazing Race, which premiered today -- almost two years after it was filmed -- on CBS-TV in the USA, has both planned and unplanned similarities to the first season of the reality-TV show about travel around the world.

First, and no doubt deliberately, the members of the cast have once again been selected, as they were in first few seasons of the show, to represent what could be presented as a cross-section (although still limited to U.S. citizens, unfortunately) of "ordinary" Americans.

Some recent seasons of The Amazing Race have featured cast members many of whom (or in one season all of whom) were already actors or TV or social media stars selected to attract their followers to the TV show. This time around, the producers appear to have gone back to trying to choose a cast of characters viewers could identify with. I like that, and I think most viewers will too. Part of the fun of "The Amazing Race" is trying to imagine, "What would I do if I and my companion were put in this situation?" or "What would ordinary Americans do?" And I'd rather see cast members who are being themselves than professionals trying to put on an act to get themselves another TV or acting gig or product endorsement contract. Yes, the cast this season includes several professional or Olympic athletes. But they aren't people who are likely to be recognized by strangers around the world who have already seen them on TV or on their YouTube channel, as has happened to some cast members on recent seasons.

The second way that this season resembles the first season of The Amazing Race is that, for the second time in the twenty years of the show, a season filmed in a time of rising expectations and opportunities for world travel is being broadcast in the aftermath of traumatic events that have caused an unprecedented decline in travel and have created even greater uncertainty as to the future of travel in general and globetrotting in particular.

The Amazing Race 1 was filmed in March and April of 2001, and the first episode was broadcast on 5 September 2001 and again (to build buzz for the new show) on 9 September 2001. After the events of 11 September 2001 -- which grounded flights and stranded travellers around the world -- it wasn't clear if travel, especially international travel, would ever recover (it did, in some but not all respects, but it took several years), how it would be different (a question that is still being answered by events, as the largely-undiagnosed and untreated societal traumas of September 11th continue to influence travel policies and practices), and whether there would still be an audience or advertisers for a TV show about travel around the world.

Who would have thought that, almost twenty years and more than thirty TV seasons later, we would once again be watching a "reality" travel show that was filmed during less worried times and depicts travellers doing things most of us wouldn't choose to do right now?

It appears that, as they did after September 11th (although in that case after a two-week delay), CBS is going through with its broadcasts of The Amazing Race. The coronavirus pandemic makes filming new TV shows or movies difficult, so CBS is undoubtedly reluctant to scrap a series that is already bought, paid for, filmed, edited, and ready to air. But I expect that throughout this season many of us will be watching The Amazing Race 32 with part of our mind on what is happening on the screen, and another part constantly asking, "How would this scene or setting be different today during the pandemic?" and/or "Will we ever see or do anything like this again?"

Meanwhile, I expect that many of us will be wondering, as we did after September 11th, whether we should still (or again) be travelling, where or how we can travel safely today, or what we should be doing differently if we travel.

These are important questions, as they were in 2001, and there's much we can learn by comparing our responses as travellers to the traumas and fears of the terrorist attacks of September 11th and the current coronavirus pandemic. Nevertheless, some of the issues -- and, at least for me, many of the answers -- are very different for people contemplating travel today than they were after September 11th.

If there's one thing that's the same now as it was after September 11th, it's that we can't trust, and shouldn't rely on, either the travel industry or the U.S. government to tell us when, where, or how to travel or whether it's safe.

Airline cabin crews are in as much danger as anyone. But they aren't the ones making the decisions about what to say in press releases or signage. One might hope that airline owners and managers would care about their employees' health as well as that of their customers. But airline owners have a poor track record when it comes to concern for their employees' health and safety, much less that of passengers -- especially when the interests of employee or passenger health and safety conflict with those of corporate profits or executives' jobs.

Travel company owners' profits, and travel company managers' jobs, depend on convincing you that it's safe to travel. Just as they did after September 11th, travel companies will enthusiastically endorse whatever theatrics they think will make you feel it's safe to travel, even if they know that travel in a time of pandemic increases the risk of infection for guests and hosts alike.

Some travel companies, such as Rick Steves' tour company, have deep enough pockets and strong enough morals to afford to do the right thing and wait out the pandemic. Most don't, including almost all airlines. If they can't persuade you to start travelling again soon, in large numbers, like it was 2019 again, they will go bankrupt soon. They will say what they think they need to say to persuade you to travel, and to travel soon.

Governments also have ulterior motives for their story line on travel safety. As they did after September 11th, they are using safety, security, and panic as pretexts for preexisting agendas of travel surveillance and control, even when the measures being taken in the name of the pandemic actually increase the risks to travellers. Whether, where, or how we are "allowed" to travel says little about whether we should, or how safe it is.

For example, as I've been writing about for the Identity Project, airlines, airport operating authorities, and the U.S. Transportation Security Administration all wanted to use facial recognition for automated identification of travellers, long before the pandemic. Now they all claim, disingenuously, that facial recognition is safer because it is "touchless". But they ignore the fact that it necessarily requires travellers to remove their face masks for mug shots -- at some of the most crowded airport choke points: check-in counters, TSA checkpoints, boarding gates, customs and immigration inspection stations, etc. Facial recognition serves airlines' desire for automation and labor cost savings and governments' desire for surveillance and control, at the expense of passengers' safety during the pandemic.

Similarly, government agencies are using health concerns as the pretext for ordering airlines to collect and provide the government with even more information about travellers, even while they are working to mandate that airlines hand over whatever information they have entered in your reservations to the government of every country you visit. Are they trying to protect us, or to police us? You may trust the government in some countries, but do you trust the government and the police of every country you visit?

The fact that both travel companies and government agencies have ulterior motives for what they tell travellers makes it harder than it should be to make choices about whether, when, where, and how to travel. We have to make potentially life-or-death decisions about matters in which we aren't expert. That's often true in life, but it doesn't allow for the "worry-free" travel we want, at least if we want to travel responsibly. And as I also noted after September 11th, our fears are often poorly correlated with actual risks, so that following our instincts may lead us into greater danger.

I might have to take a 5000 km (3000 mile) cross-country trip soon for family reasons. While I know people who, in similar circumstances recently, have decided to drive and camp or sleep in their vehicle along the way, to avoid the risk of infection on a six-hour flight, I would choose to fly to avoid the many close encounters with other people, and the risk of infection, that a cross-country road trip would inevitably require. That's a personal judgment call, not a recommendation for what anyone else should do. I'm an expert in travel, not in infectious diseases.

Phil Keoghan starts each season of The Amazing Race with the send-off, "Travel safe!" But safety is never about the elimination of risk, and it's almost always a mistake to think in terms of, "Is this safe or not?" Everything we do in life has inherent and unavoidable risks. There are no perfectly safe choices and there is no risk-free way to live -- or to travel. There's never a completely safe time to travel, completely safe place to travel, or completely safe way to travel. Choices about safety are choices made under uncertainty about the weighted balance of probabilistic predictions. That's what "risk" means. Experts in risk think in terms of risk assessment, risk reduction, risk choices, and risk mitigation, not the (impossible) elimination of risk.

The question is what risks to put on each side of the scale, and how to weigh them against each other.

Some of the current risks and weightings are quite different than they were after September 11th.

After September 11th, world travel was no more dangerous than usual, and in most cases no more dangerous than staying home. Travel today during the coronavirus pandemic really is both more dangerous than usual and, unless you live in especially hazardous conditions, more dangerous than staying home.

In addition, the hazards of travel, or at least those we think about, are usually the hazards to ourselves. We might get robbed by pickpockets or snatch-thieves (it's happened to me four times, in Chicago, London, Durban, and Dar es Salaam, although it could have been anywhere) or we might get hit by a car (as happened to my father-in-law in Harare, although it could have been anywhere). We might get sick or injured and wind up in a hospital far from our home or our doctors, as has happened to several of my family members on different continents. Or our bus could crash (that hasn't happened to me yet, but it's always a risk).

Today, travelling creates risks not just for ourselves but for everyone we meet along the way, and for everyone in their homes and workplaces. Imposing risks on others requires a higher level of justification, I think, than choosing to take risks with our own life. So I ask myself, "Is this trip worth the cost in risk to myself and to others?"

If there's a parallel in the past to this sort of thinking, it's the kind of thinking I've been doing for years about air travel. Each time I choose to fly, that imposes a cost on everyone in the world in the contribution it makes to global warming. I try, not always successfully, to include that fact in my cost-benefit analysis each time I consider buying an airline ticket. I don't think I or anyone should fly -- or travel by car, which imposes other costs on the world -- without a good reason. What's a good reason is, of course, a personal decision.

During this pandemic, we face difficult travel choices: How much risk does our planned trip impose on ourselves and others, and is there a sufficient reason and likely benefit from this trip to outweigh that risk? That's an unpleasant, unwanted choice to have to make, but it's not one we can or should avoid thinking about.

These are some of the questions I'll be considering as The Amazing Race 32 continues.

Link | Posted by Edward on Wednesday, 14 October 2020, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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